Tuesday, August 20, 2019

What I am Working On: Two Quotes on Marx and Work

This  post is more on the spirit than the letter of Tronti but I thought that I would use
the image of this french translation now that it has been rendered obsolete by the English translation

In general it is bad form, not to mention questionable scholarship, to treat Marx like some kind of scripture, quoting specific passages rather than looking for the overall logic or idea. Despite this injunction I often find myself obsessed with a particular passage from Marx (hell, I wrote an entire book that is a commentary on one passage from the Grundrisse).  In my defense this is because, as many readers of Marx will recognized, Marx's mature thought, from Capital onward, often crystalizes in incredibly provocative and polemical passages that stand as mountains above the arid plateaus where linen is exchange for coats. Speaking of arid plateaus the first passage that I have been obsessed with comes from Volume Three where Marx writes. 

"The specific economic form in which unpaid surplus labour is pumped out of the direct producers determines the relationship of domination and servitude, as this grows directly out of production itself and reacts back on it in turn as a determinant. It is in each case the direct relationship of the owners of production to the immediate producers—a relationship whose particular form naturally corresponds always to a certain level of development of the type and manner of labour, and hence to its social productive power—in which we find the innermost secret, the hidden basis of the entire social edifice and hence also the political form of the relationship of sovereignty and dependence, in short, the specific form of the state in each case."

As I wrote earlier, following Balibar's provocative remarks, this passage short-circuits the standard definition of base and superstructure. Labor, the work relation becomes the conductive thread that connects politics and economics. The labor relation becomes directly the political relation without passing through the mediations of law, ideology, and politics. How we work, how we are managed in the private sphere is the secret kernel of how we are governed in the public sphere. There is a second passage from Marx, from Capital one, that illustrates how this might function, connecting in direct terms production and politics. As Marx writes, 

"The same bourgeois consciousness which celebrates the division of labour in the workshop, the lifelong annexation of the worker to partial operation, and his complete subjection to capital, as an organization of labour that increases its productive power, denounces with equal vigour every conscious attempt to control and regulate the process of production socially as an inroad upon such sacred things as the rights of property, freedom and the self-determining ‘genius’ of the individual capitalist."

Marx's passage could be understood as a gloss on the more well known passage on "freedom, equality, and Bentham." The market as the sphere of freedom is underwritten by the constraint of the workplace. However, now what is stressed is the way in which that division between freedom and constraint becomes part of the ideology of not just capital but the entirety of society and politics. In order for the world to function capital must be free and work must be constrained and disciplined. To threaten either, to constrain or curtail the freedom of capital or democratize or liberate work is to risk a collapse of production altogether. As much as people say that capitalism exists because of its freedom and competition they really mean freedom for capital. Competition also necessitates constraint for the worker. Freedom of capital and constraint for the worker are the practical and ideological edifice upon which not just the entire economy but the entire state is constructed. 

This edifice has its foundation not in ideology or political beliefs, but in a reality that is experienced daily.To paraphrase Christophe Dejours, work is politically central because it is epistemologically central. Work shapes how we understand the world, and most importantly how we understand our capacities and the capacities of others. There have been a slew of books recently trying to make sense of the lack of political engagement of workers after the 2008 recession. I am thinking of Jennifer Silva's We are Still Here: Pain and Politics at the Heart of America and Arlie Hochschild's Strangers in their Own Land. Without getting into their specific arguments it is worth noting that Marx is making a much more structural argument. It is not the specific policy or proposal of this or that politician that alienates workers from political involvement, but that work itself is a laboratory of depoliticization, of disengagement, and alienation.

If the specific form of the state that emerges from this work relation is one of passivity and disconnection, on the part of workers, and activity and transformation, on the part of the capitalist class, then there is no transformation of the state that is not a transformation of work and vice versa. Without this, without a transformation of activity at the day to day level, politics can at best be the election of a new boss (and we all know what they say about new bosses). 

From the Haymarket Cafe Northampton

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